Q. What is the definition of kufr and shirk? Are the People of the Book (Jews and Christians) kafir?
A. Kufr in pre-Islamic Arabic vocabulary meant "without gratitude." Isutzu has wonderfully shown this in his book on ethical concepts in the Qur'an. Yes, the term did later evolve to mean rejection of God. Now in the Qur'an, we are told that those who say God is one of three have committed kufr; this could only be in its lexical pre-Islamic literal meaning. Why? Neither a Jew nor a Christian is a kafir in terms of the meaning of rejecting God. As Ibn Taimiyyah has stated, our difference with them is not in terms of Rububiyyah (Lordship), nor Uluhiyya (Divinity), but about Asma and Siffat (Names and Description). A kafir -- the later terminology -- means someone who rejects God to begin with. So in literal translation then, the verse means that those who say that God is one of three have been ungrateful to God, denying the oneness and uniqueness of God (His Asma and Sifaat).
Shirk is a plurality of Gods. Now why does Allah not refer to the Trinity as shirk? -- because it is not. Ask any Christian and he will tell you that there is only one God. Yes, he will confuse himself and you by seeking to make that one of three. This stems from a confusion of Allah's essence and attributes, etc., matters that came to pass because of an imbibing of Greek and heathen philosophical concepts. But the mere fact that the Christian somehow tries to make three into one shows that he is not intent on shirk qua shirk, i.e. it is not shirk in its true form, although we may say that it has a facet of polytheism in it. Shirk is when one says there are more than one, separate, distinct Gods. Kufr has been explained above, but in later Qur'anic and modern terminological usage, refers to one who has, after receiving the clear proofs and message, rejected God.
Posted April 26, 1999